Was Mother Teresa’s Humanitarian Image ‘A Myth’? (Updated)
50 YEARS OF MOTHER TERESA’S LIFE TO GLISTEN ON SCREEN
Written and directed by William C Riead, The Letters — which depicts 50 years of Mother Teresa’s life — is based on the real-life treasure trove of letters she wrote to a spiritual director over the years. The content of these letters revealed that she often suffered a feeling of isolation and abandonment during the years she was working for the poor in India, said a publicity release, according to shootonline.com.
Hollywood Makes Biopic On Mother Teresa With Indian Cast?
Mother Teresa Biopic The Letters Films On Location In Goa In India
MOTHER TERESA HUMANITARIAN IMAGE A ‘MYTH,’ NEW STUDY SAYS
MOTHER TERESA: ANYTHING BUT A SAINT…
MOTHER TERESA’S CRISIS OF FAITH
Was Mother Teresa’s Humanitarian Image ‘A Myth’? (Updated)Nov 14
Updated November 14, 2013
Added information about 2014 Mother Teresa movie, “The Letters”.
50 YEARS OF MOTHER TERESA’S LIFE TO GLISTEN ON SCREEN
By News Desk
The Express Tribune
August 29, 2013
Catholic nun and missionary Mother Teresa of Albanian descent, who devoted decades of her life to helping the needy, blind, aged and disabled, left millions in tears when she passed away in Kolkata in 1997 due to health problems. A biopic on this humble woman titled The Letters, is currently under production and will hit screens across the globe on March 5 next year.
Written and directed by William C Riead, The Letters — which depicts 50 years of Mother Teresa’s life — is based on the real-life treasure trove of letters she wrote to a spiritual director over the years. The content of these letters revealed that she often suffered a feeling of isolation and abandonment during the years she was working for the poor in India, said a publicity release, according to shootonline.com.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner (1979) used to slip out of her cloister to help the poor against the rules. The film is said to be a work of love and passion for Riead, who sold his house to make this project real, according to the Times of India.
Actor Juliet Stevenson, known for her role in Bend It Like Beckham, will play the pivotal role of Mother Teresa and two-time Academy Award nominated actor Max von Sydow, will play the spiritual director. Golden Globe award winner Rutger Hauer will also star in the movie and the film’s DOP is Jack Green, who has been director-producer Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer.
Indian actors who will be seen in the movie, which was shot mainly in India and London, include Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, Kaizaad Kotwal of Inkaar fame and Tilottama Shome. “Working with William Riead and Jack Green was an unbelievable experience and, of course, working with the hugely-talented Juliet Stevenson, was just such an honour,” Mahabanoo told the Times of India.
“I play this woman who is antagonistic towards this strange, foreign lady and how a very human, intimate contact leads to a change of heart,” says Tilottama. “What really made me think in this movie, is how we live in our respective groups, suspicious and antagonistic towards the ‘other’.”
RELATED MOVIE ARTICLES & LINKS:
Hollywood Makes Biopic On Mother Teresa With Indian Cast?
By Nasreen Khan
The Times of India
August 28, 2013
Mother Teresa Biopic The Letters Films On Location In Goa In India
By Nick Goundry
The Location Guide
June 27, 2012
Rutger Hauer Website on “Letters”
Danghram, India, 2003. A car speeds through the back roads of India. Behind the wheel is Father Benjamin Praagh, a priest dispatched by the Vatican as postulator for Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood. He arrives at a remote hospital where people are gathered around the bed of a frail Indian woman named Monica Beshra. The healing of a tumor in her abdomen will mark the first of two miracles required by the Vatican before someone can be canonized a saint.
Father Praagh later arrives at the retirement quarters of Father Celeste van Exem, a priest in his eighties who was friends with Mother Teresa and was her spiritual advisor. He shares with Father Praagh letters that she sent to him over a forty year period, letters that reveal a spiritual darkness she suffered the better part of her adult life, something not even the Vatican was aware of. This suffering began when she started her work with the poor in 1946.
In one letter Father van Exem reads to Father Praagh she refers to having “no God” in her … a revelation that prompts more questions from the younger priest, at which the older priest begins to reflect back on when he first met Mother Teresa in 1939 … when Mother Teresa, then Sister Teresa, was a young nun teaching at the Loreto convent in Calcutta. He looks at a photograph of the two of them when they were younger, and the film slowly morphs from cepia tone in the photograph to full enriched color taking us back to 1939, when Mother Teresa arrived in Calcutta.
We witness the moment on September 10, 1946 when Mother Teresa first received her calling to leave the convent and go live among the poor … and serve them … make Mota Jiel, the poorest slum of Calcutta, her home. We witness her struggles with her own poverty as she began her work, her lack of support from her fellow nuns at the convent, her inability to get the attention of the Vatican, her depression as the nuns at Loreto turned their backs on her, referring to her as “evil” for leaving her cloistered life … and then the day when her former students began to, one by one, graduate from Loreto and join her, marking the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity.
Throughout the story we return to Father Van Exem and Father Praagh, the older priest referring to his admiration for Mother Teresa for her devotion and perseverance to serve the poor. As Father Praagh asks Father van Exem questions, the old priest periodically sits back in his chair and continues to reflect, sharing with Father Praagh his witnessing her struggles, her eventual sadness, and the sadness he himself felt as he would read her letters as they arrived.
Along the way a BBC reporter, assigned to Calcutta as a bureau chief during post-war India, begins to hear about Mother Teresa’s work in the cities worst slum district. On a slow news day he wonders out into Mota Jiel to locate her, and finding her attempts to get an interview and is rejected. When he says to her, “Your work with the poor”, she corrects him with, “God’s work, not mine”.
This unexpected modesty and selflessness fascinates the reporter, who’s an avowed atheist, and he begins to visit her weekly in hopes of getting an interview. When she finally relents, Mother Teresa becomes news around the world and over time she and the reporter form a lifelong bond and friendship. At the end of his life he dies a devout Catholic.
Returning to Father Praagh and Father van Exem in present day, the older priest unexpectedly offers the letters to Father Praagh. He is convinced that the letters will provide final proof to the Vatican of Mother Teresa’s worthiness of sainthood. Father Praagh takes the letters, vowing to guard them with his life.
On returning to the Vatican, Father Praagh gives an impassioned speech to a gathering of cardinals in the Vatican’s boardroom, ending the speech with why Mother Teresa, in his opinion and based on his findings, should be canonized a saint. The speech is interlaced with scenes of Mother Teresa working in the slums … receiving the Nobel Peace Prize … and a final scene with her walking down a lonely road in Mota Jiel, now an old woman, while haunting music plays over.
MOTHER TERESA HUMANITARIAN IMAGE A ‘MYTH,’ NEW STUDY SAYS
By Ron Dicker
The Huffington Post
February 5, 2013
A new study by Canadian academics says Mother Teresa was a product of hype who housed the poor and sick in shoddy conditions, despite her access to a fortune.
The Times of India, reporting on the controversial essay, wrote that the authors asserted Mother Teresa saw beauty in the downtrodden’s suffering and was far more willing to pray for them than provide practical medical care. Meanwhile, researchers say, the Vatican engaged in a PR ploy as it threw aside concerns about her suspicious financial dealings and contacts to forgo the five-year waiting period to beatify her.
One of the researchers, Serge Larivee of the University of Montreal’s department of psychoeducation, told the school’s website, “Given the parsimonious management of Mother Theresa’s works, one may ask where the millions of dollars for the poorest of the poor have gone?”
The research paper claims that the celebrated nun had 517 missions in 100 countries at the time of her death, but that the majority of patients were not cared for properly and many were left to die, according to the university website. In addition, the Vatican is said to have ignored a doctor’s assertions when it concluded that a Mother Teresa miracle healed a woman who had tuberculosis and an ovarian cyst.
Researchers Carole Senechal of the University of Ottawa and Larivee and Genevieve Chenard from the University of Montreal came to their conclusions by examining 96 percent of the originally researched, published works about Teresa, according to the U of M website. Their findings are to be published in French-language journal Studies in Religion/Sciences.
Some of their references included medical journals and British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who called Mother Teresa a “fraud.”
Other researchers have criticized Mother Teresa’s efforts in the past. Mother Teresa: A Biography, written by Meg Greene and published in 2004, recounts an article by the Lancet medical journal that outlined the neglect and lack of expertise in a Calcutta facility established by Mother Teresa.
The website of the Nobel Peace Prize, which Mother Teresa won in 1979, takes a far more positive view of her deeds. It celebrates her early work in Calcutta’s slums and credits her order and its outgrowths with providing “effective help to the poorest of the poor in a number of countries.” Indeed, the U of M paper even concedes that one of her legacies is the generation of humanitarians she inspired.
Mother Teresa died at age 87 in 1997.
MOTHER TERESA: ANYTHING BUT A SAINT…
March 1, 2013
The myth of altruism and generosity surrounding Mother Teresa is dispelled in a paper by Serge Larivée and Genevieve Chenard of University of Montreal’s Department of Psychoeducation and Carole Sénéchal of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education. The paper will be published in the March issue of the journal Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses and is an analysis of the published writings about Mother Teresa. Like the journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who is amply quoted in their analysis, the researchers conclude that her hallowed image — which does not stand up to analysis of the facts — was constructed, and that her beatification was orchestrated by an effective media relations campaign.
“While looking for documentation on the phenomenon of altruism for a seminar on ethics, one of us stumbled upon the life and work of one of Catholic Church’s most celebrated woman and now part of our collective imagination — Mother Teresa — whose real name was Agnes Gonxha,” says Professor Larivée, who led the research. “The description was so ecstatic that it piqued our curiosity and pushed us to research further.”
As a result, the three researchers collected 502 documents on the life and work of Mother Teresa. After eliminating 195 duplicates, they consulted 287 documents to conduct their analysis, representing 96% of the literature on the founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity (OMC).
Facts debunk the myth of Mother Teresa
In their article, Serge Larivée and his colleagues also cite a number of problems not take into account by the Vatican in Mother Teresa’s beatification process, such as “her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception, and divorce.”
The sick must suffer like Christ on the cross
At the time of her death, Mother Teresa had opened 517 missions welcoming the poor and sick in more than 100 countries. The missions have been described as “homes for the dying” by doctors visiting several of these establishments in Calcutta. Two-thirds of the people coming to these missions hoped to a find a doctor to treat them, while the other third lay dying without receiving appropriate care. The doctors observed a significant lack of hygiene, even unfit conditions, as well as a shortage of actual care, inadequate food, and no painkillers. The problem is not a lack of money — the Foundation created by Mother Teresa has raised hundreds of millions of dollars — but rather a particular conception of suffering and death: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” was her reply to criticism, cites the journalist Christopher Hitchens. Nevertheless, when Mother Teresa required palliative care, she received it in a modern American hospital.
Questionable politics and shadowy accounting
Mother Teresa was generous with her prayers but rather miserly with her foundation’s millions when it came to humanity’s suffering. During numerous floods in India or following the explosion of a pesticide plant in Bhopal, she offered numerous prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary but no direct or monetary aid. On the other hand, she had no qualms about accepting the Legion of Honour and a grant from the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. Millions of dollars were transferred to the MCO’s various bank accounts, but most of the accounts were kept secret, Larivée says. “Given the parsimonious management of Mother Theresa’s works, one may ask where the millions of dollars for the poorest of the poor have gone?”
The grand media plan for holiness
Despite these disturbing facts, how did Mother Teresa succeed in building an image of holiness and infinite goodness? According to the three researchers, her meeting in London in 1968 with the BBC’s Malcom Muggeridge, an anti-abortion journalist who shared her right-wing Catholic values, was crucial. Muggeridge decided to promote Teresa, who consequently discovered the power of mass media. In 1969, he made a eulogistic film of the missionary, promoting her by attributing to her the “first photographic miracle,” when it should have been attributed to the new film stock being marketed by Kodak. Afterwards, Mother Teresa travelled throughout the world and received numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech, on the subject of Bosnian women who were raped by Serbs and now sought abortion, she said: “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself.”
Following her death, the Vatican decided to waive the usual five-year waiting period to open the beatification process. The miracle attributed to Mother Theresa was the healing of a woman, Monica Besra, who had been suffering from intense abdominal pain. The woman testified that she was cured after a medallion blessed by Mother Theresa was placed on her abdomen. Her doctors thought otherwise: the ovarian cyst and the tuberculosis from which she suffered were healed by the drugs they had given her. The Vatican, nevertheless, concluded that it was a miracle. Mother Teresa’s popularity was such that she had become untouchable for the population, which had already declared her a saint. “What could be better than beatification followed by canonization of this model to revitalize the Church and inspire the faithful especially at a time when churches are empty and the Roman authority is in decline?” Larivée and his colleagues ask.
Positive effect of the Mother Teresa myth
Despite Mother Teresa’s dubious way of caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it, Serge Larivée and his colleagues point out the positive effect of the Mother Teresa myth: “If the extraordinary image of Mother Teresa conveyed in the collective imagination has encouraged humanitarian initiatives that are genuinely engaged with those crushed by poverty, we can only rejoice. It is likely that she has inspired many humanitarian workers whose actions have truly relieved the suffering of the destitute and addressed the causes of poverty and isolation without being extolled by the media. Nevertheless, the media coverage of Mother Theresa could have been a little more rigorous.”
About the study
The study was conducted by Serge Larivée, Department of psychoeducation, University of Montreal, Carole Sénéchal, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, and Geneviève Chénard, Department of psychoeducation, University of Montreal.
Wikipedia: The Criticism of Mother Teresa
Towards the end of her life, Mother Teresa attracted some negative attention in the Western media. The journalist Christopher Hitchens was one of her most active critics. He was commissioned to co-write and narrate the documentary Hell’s Angel about her for the British Channel 4 after Aroup Chatterjee encouraged the making of such a programme, although Chatterjee was unhappy with the “sensationalist approach” of the final product. Hitchens expanded his criticism in a 1995 book, The Missionary Position.
Chatterjee writes that while she was alive Mother Teresa and her official biographers refused to collaborate with his own investigations and that she failed to defend herself against critical coverage in the Western press. He gives as examples a report in The Guardian in Britain whose “stringent (and quite detailed) attack on conditions in her orphanages … [include] charges of gross neglect and physical and emotional abuse”, and another documentary Mother Teresa: Time for Change? broadcast in several European countries.
The German magazine Stern published a critical article on the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death. This concerned allegations regarding financial matters and the spending of donations. The medical press has also published criticism of her, arising from very different outlooks and priorities on patients’ needs. Other critics include Tariq Ali of the New Left Review and the Irish investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre.
She has also been criticised for her view on suffering. She felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus. Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, criticised the failure to give painkillers, writing that in her Homes for the Dying, one could “hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers were not administered even in severe cases. According to Mother Teresa’s philosophy, it is ‘the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ’.”
The quality of care offered to terminally ill patients in the Homes for the Dying has been criticised in the medical press. The Lancet and the British Medical Journal reported the reuse of hypodermic needles, poor living conditions, including the use of cold baths for all patients, and an approach to illness and suffering that precluded the use of many elements of modern medical care, such as systematic diagnosis. Dr. Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, described the medical care as “haphazard”, as volunteers without medical knowledge had to make decisions about patient care, because of the lack of doctors. He observed that her order did not distinguish between curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment. Dr. Fox makes it a point to contrast the term “hospice”, on the one hand, with what he calls “Mother Teresa’s Care for the Dying” on the other hand; noting that, while hospice emphasises minimising suffering with professional medical care and attention to expressed needs and wishes of the patient, her approach does not.
Colette Livermore, a former Missionary of Charity, describes her reasons for leaving the order in her book Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning. Livermore found what she called Mother Teresa’s “theology of suffering” to be flawed, despite being a good and courageous person. Though Mother Teresa instructed her followers on the importance of spreading the Gospel through actions rather than theological lessons, Livermore could not reconcile this with some of the practices of the organization. Examples she gives include unnecessarily refusing to help the needy when they approached the sisters at the wrong time according to the prescribed schedule, discouraging sisters from seeking medical training to deal with the illnesses they encountered (with the justification that God empowers the weak and ignorant), and imposition of “unjust” punishments, such as being transferred away from friends. Livermore says that the Missionaries of Charity “infantilized” its sisters by prohibiting the reading of secular books and newspapers, and emphasizing obedience over independent thinking and problem-solving.
Hitchens and Stern have said Mother Teresa did not focus donated money on alleviating poverty or improving the conditions of her hospices, but on opening new convents and increasing missionary work. Mother Teresa accepted donations from the autocratic and corrupt Duvalier family in Haiti and openly praised them. She accepted $1.25 million from Charles Keating, involved in the fraud and corruption scheme known as the Keating Five scandal and supported him before and after his arrest. The Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles, Paul Turley, wrote to Mother Teresa asking her to return the donated money to the people Keating had stolen from, one of whom was “a poor carpenter”. The donated money was not accounted for, and Turley did not receive a reply.
Mother Teresa’s 1979 Nobel Peace Prize Speech
As we have gathered here together to thank God for the Nobel Peace Prize I think it will be beautiful that we pray the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi which always surprises me very much — we pray this prayer every day after Holy Communion, because it is very fitting for each one of us, and I always wonder that 4-500 years ago as St. Francis of Assisi composed this prayer that they had the same difficulties that we have today, as we compose this prayer that fits very nicely for us also. I think some of you already have got it — so we will pray together.
Let us thank God for the opportunity that we all have together today, for this gift of peace that reminds us that we have been created to live that peace, and Jesus became man to bring that good news to the poor. He being God became man in all things like us except sin, and he proclaimed very clearly that he had come to give the good news. The news was peace to all of good will and this is something that we all want — the peace of heart — and God loved the world so much that he gave his son — it was a giving — it is as much as if to say it hurt God to give, because he loved the world so much that he gave his son, and he gave him to Virgin Mary, and what did she do with him?
As soon as he came in her life — immediately she went in haste to give that good news, and as she came into the house of her cousin, the child — the unborn child — the child in the womb of Elizabeth, leapt with joy. He was that little unborn child, was the first messenger of peace. He recognised the Prince of Peace, he recognised that Christ has come to bring the good news for you and for me. And as if that was not enough — it was not enough to become a man — he died on the cross to show that greater love, and he died for you and for me and for that leper and for that man dying of hunger and that naked person lying in the street not only of Calcutta, but of Africa, and New York, and London, and Oslo — and insisted that we love one another as he loves each one of us. And we read that in the Gospel very clearly — love as I have loved you — as I love you — as the Father has loved me, I love you — and the harder the Father loved him, he gave him to us, and how much we love one another, we, too, must give each other until it hurts. It is not enough for us to say: I love God, but I do not love my neighbour. St. John says you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbour. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbour whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live. And so this is very important for us to realise that love, to be true, has to hurt. It hurt Jesus to love us, it hurt him. And to make sure we remember his great love he made himself the bread of life to satisfy our hunger for his love. Our hunger for God, because we have been created for that love. We have been created in his image. We have been created to love and be loved, and then he has become man to make it possible for us to love as he loved us. He makes himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one — the sick one — the one in prison — the lonely one — the unwanted one — and he says: You did it to me. Hungry for our love, and this is the hunger of our poor people. This is the hunger that you and I must find, it may be in our own home.
I never forget an opportunity I had in visiting a home where they had all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them in an institution and forgotten maybe. And I went there, and I saw in that home they had everything, beautiful things, but everybody was looking towards the door. And I did not see a single one with their smile on their face. And I turned to the Sister and I asked: How is that? How is it that the people they have everything here, why are they all looking towards the door, why are they not smiling? I am so used to see the smile on our people, even the dying one smile, and she said: This is nearly every day, they are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten, and see – this is where love comes. That poverty comes right there in our own home, even neglect to love. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried, and these are difficult days for everybody. Are we there, are we there to receive them, is the mother there to receive the child?
I was surprised in the West to see so many young boys and girls given into drugs, and I tried to find out why — why is it like that, and the answer was: Because there is no one in the family to receive them. Father and mother are so busy they have no time. Young parents are in some institution and the child takes back to the street and gets involved in something. We are talking of peace. These are things that break peace, but I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: Even if a mother could forget her child — I will not forget you — I have carved you in the palm of my hand. We are carved in the palm of His hand, so close to Him that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God. And that is what strikes me most, the beginning of that sentence, that even if a mother could forget something impossible — but even if she could forget — I will not forget you. And today the greatest means — the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion. And we who are standing here — our parents wanted us. We would not be here if our parents would do that to us. Our children, we want them, we love them, but what of the millions. Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child — what is left for me to kill you and you kill me — there is nothing between. And this I appeal in India, I appeal everywhere: Let us bring the child back, and this year being the child’s year: What have we done for the child? At the beginning of the year I told, I spoke everywhere and I said: Let us make this year that we make every single child born, and unborn, wanted. And today is the end of the year, have we really made the children wanted? I will give you something terrifying. We are fighting abortion by adoption, we have saved thousands of lives, we have sent words to all the clinics, to the hospitals, police stations — please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child. So every hour of the day and night it is always somebody, we have quite a number of unwedded mothers — tell them come, we will take care of you, we will take the child from you, and we will get a home for the child. And we have a tremendous demand from families who have no children, that is the blessing of God for us. And also, we are doing another thing which is very beautiful — we are teaching our beggars, our leprosy patients, our slum dwellers, our people of the street, natural family planning.
And in Calcutta alone in six years — it is all in Calcutta — we have had 61,273 babies less from the families who would have had, but because they practise this natural way of abstaining, of self-control, out of love for each other. We teach them the temperature meter which is very beautiful, very simple, and our poor people understand. And you know what they have told me? Our family is healthy, our family is united, and we can have a baby whenever we want. So clear — those people in the street, those beggars — and I think that if our people can do like that how much more you and all the others who can know the ways and means without destroying the life that God has created in us.
The poor people are very great people. They can teach us so many beautiful things. The other day one of them came to thank and said: You people who have vowed chastity you are the best people to teach us family planning. Because it is nothing more than self-control out of love for each other. And I think they said a beautiful sentence. And these are people who maybe have nothing to eat, maybe they have not a home where to live, but they are great people. The poor are very wonderful people. One evening we went out and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in a most terrible condition — and I told the Sisters: You take care of the other three, I take of this one that looked worse. So I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand, as she said one word only: Thank you — and she died.
I could not help but examine my conscience before her, and I asked what would I say if I was in her place. And my answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself, I would have said I am hungry, that I am dying, I am cold, I am in pain, or something, but she gave me much more — she gave me her grateful love. And she died with a smile on her face. As that man whom we picked up from the drain, half eaten with worms, and we brought him to the home. I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for. And it was so wonderful to see the greatness of that man who could speak like that, who could die like that without blaming anybody, without cursing anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel — this is the greatness of our people. And that is why we believe what Jesus had said: I was hungry — I was naked — I was homeless — I was unwanted, unloved, uncared for — and you did it to me.
I believe that we are not real social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of the people, but we are really contemplatives in the heart of the world. For we are touching the Body of Christ 24 hours. We have 24 hours in this presence, and so you and I. You too try to bring that presence of God in your family, for the family that prays together stays together. And I think that we in our family don’t need bombs and guns, to destroy to bring peace — just get together, love one another, bring that peace, that joy, that strength of presence of each other in the home. And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world.
There is so much suffering, so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice are beginning at home. Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do. It is to God Almighty — how much we do it does not matter, because He is infinite, but how much love we put in that action. How much we do to Him in the person that we are serving.
Some time ago in Calcutta we had great difficulty in getting sugar, and I don’t know how the word got around to the children, and a little boy of four years old, Hindu boy, went home and told his parents: I will not eat sugar for three days, I will give my sugar to Mother Teresa for her children. After three days his father and mother brought him to our home. I had never met them before, and this little one could scarcely pronounce my name, but he knew exactly what he had come to do. He knew that he wanted to share his love.
And this is why I have received such a lot of love from you all. From the time that I have come here I have simply been surrounded with love, and with real, real understanding love. It could feel as if everyone in India, everyone in Africa is somebody very special to you. And I felt quite at home I was telling Sister today. I feel in the Convent with the Sisters as if I am in Calcutta with my own Sisters. So completely at home here, right here.
And so here I am talking with you — I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there. Be that good news to your own people. And find out about your next-door neighbour – do you know who they are? I had the most extraordinary experience with a Hindu family who had eight children. A gentleman came to our house and said: Mother Teresa, there is a family with eight children, they had not eaten for so long — do something. So I took some rice and I went there immediately. And I saw the children — their eyes shinning with hunger — I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger. But I have seen it very often. And she took the rice, she divided the rice, and she went out. When she came back I asked her – where did you go, what did you do? And she gave me a very simple answer: They are hungry also. What struck me most was that she knew — and who are they, a Muslim family — and she knew. I didn’t bring more rice that evening because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of sharing. But there were those children, radiating joy, sharing the joy with their mother because she had the love to give. And you see this is where love begins — at home. And I want you — and I am very grateful for what I have received. It has been a tremendous experience and I go back to India — I will be back by next week, the 15th I hope — and I will be able to bring your love.
And I know well that you have not given from your abundance, but you have given until it has hurt you. Today the little children they have — I was so surprised — there is so much joy for the children that are hungry. That the children like themselves will need love and care and tenderness, like they get so much from their parents. So let us thank God that we have had this opportunity to come to know each other, and this knowledge of each other has brought us very close. And we will be able to help not only the children of India and Africa, but will be able to help the children of the whole world, because as you know our Sisters are all over the world. And with this prize that I have received as a prize of peace, I am going to try to make the home for many people that have no home. Because I believe that love begins at home, and if we can create a home for the poor — I think that more and more love will spread. And we will be able through this understanding love to bring peace, be the good news to the poor. The poor in our own family first, in our country and in the world.
To be able to do this, our Sisters, our lives have to be woven with prayer. They have to be woven with Christ to be able to understand, to be able to share. Because today there is so much suffering — and I feel that the passion of Christ is being relived all over again — are we there to share that passion, to share that suffering of people. Around the world, not only in the poor countries, but I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society — that poverty is so hurtable and so much, and I find that very difficult. Our Sisters are working amongst that kind of people in the West. So you must pray for us that we may be able to be that good news, but we cannot do that without you, you have to do that here in your country. You must come to know the poor, maybe our people here have material things, everything, but I think that if we all look into our own homes, how difficult we find it sometimes to smile at each, other, and that the smile is the beginning of love.
And so let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love, and once we begin to love each other naturally we want to do something. So you pray for our Sisters and for me and for our Brothers, and for our Co-Workers that are around the world. That we may remain faithful to the gift of God, to love Him and serve Him in the poor together with you. What we have done we should not have been able to do if you did not share with your prayers, with your gifts, this continual giving. But I don’t want you to give me from your abundance, I want that you give me until it hurts.
The other day I received 15 dollars from a man who has been on his back for twenty years, and the only part that he can move is his right hand. And the only companion that he enjoys is smoking. And he said to me: I do not smoke for one week, and I send you this money. It must have been a terrible sacrifice for him, but see how beautiful, how he shared, and with that money I bought bread and I gave to those who are hungry with a joy on both sides, he was giving and the poor were receiving. This is something that you and I — it is a gift of God to us to be able to share our love with others. And let it be as it was for Jesus. Let us love one another as he loved us. Let us love Him with undivided love. And the joy of loving Him and each other — let us give now — that Christmas is coming so close. Let us keep that joy of loving Jesus in our hearts. And share that joy with all that we come in touch with. And that radiating joy is real, for we have no reason not to be happy because we have no Christ with us. Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor that we meet, Christ in the smile that we give and the smile that we receive. Let us make that one point: That no child will be unwanted, and also that we meet each other always with a smile, especially when it is difficult to smile.
I never forget some time ago about fourteen professors came from the United States from different universities. And they came to Calcutta to our house. Then we were talking about that they had been to the home for the dying. We have a home for the dying in Calcutta, where we have picked up more than 36,000 people only from the streets of Calcutta, and out of that big number more than 18,000 have died a beautiful death. They have just gone home to God; and they came to our house and we talked of love, of compassion, and then one of them asked me: Say, Mother, please tell us something that we will remember, and I said to them: Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family. Smile at each other. And then another one asked me: Are you married, and I said: Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at Jesus because he can be very demanding sometimes. This is really something true, and there is where love comes — when it is demanding, and yet we can give it to Him with joy. Just as I have said today, I have said that if I don’t go to Heaven for anything else I will be going to Heaven for all the publicity because it has purified me and sacrificed me and made me really ready to go to Heaven. I think that this is something, that we must live life beautifully, we have Jesus with us and He loves us. If we could only remember that God loves me, and I have an opportunity to love others as he loves me, not in big things, but in small things with great love, then Norway becomes a nest of love. And how beautiful it will be that from here a centre for peace has been given. That from here the joy of life of the unborn child comes out. If you become a burning light in the world of peace, then really the Nobel Peace Prize is a gift of the Norwegian people. God bless you!.
MOTHER TERESA’S CRISIS OF FAITH
By David Van Biema
August 23, 2007
“Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the “Saint of the Gutters,” went to Oslo. Dressed in her signature blue-bordered sari and shod in sandals despite below-zero temperatures, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu received that ultimate worldly accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance lecture, Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity had grown from a one-woman folly in Calcutta in 1948 into a global beacon of self-abnegating care, delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,’” she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had “[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate. She condemned abortion and bemoaned youthful drug addiction in the West. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world “that radiating joy is real” because Christ is everywhere — “Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.”
Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she assured Van der Peet. “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”
The two statements, 11 weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.
And in fact, that appears to be the case. A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist.”
That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she writes, is “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love,” she remarks to an adviser. “If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.’” Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and the author of My Life with the Saints, a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa’s doubts: “I’ve never read a saint’s life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented.” Recalls Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light’s editor: “I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa's Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her.”
The book is hardly the work of some antireligious investigative reporter who Dumpster-dived for Teresa’s correspondence. Kolodiejchuk, a senior Missionaries of Charity member, is her postulator, responsible for petitioning for her sainthood and collecting the supporting materials. (Thus far she has been beatified; the next step is canonization.) The letters in the book were gathered as part of that process.
The church anticipates spiritually fallow periods. Indeed, the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross in the 16th century coined the term the “dark night” of the soul to describe a characteristic stage in the growth of some spiritual masters. Teresa’s may be the most extensive such case on record. (The “dark night” of the 18th century mystic St. Paul of the Cross lasted 45 years; he ultimately recovered.) Yet Kolodiejchuk sees it in St. John’s context, as darkness within faith. Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with it and abandoned neither her belief nor her work. Kolodiejchuk produced the book as proof of the faith-filled perseverance that he sees as her most spiritually heroic act.
Two very different Catholics predict that the book will be a landmark. The Rev. Matthew Lamb, chairman of the theology department at the conservative Ave Maria University in Florida, thinks Come Be My Light will eventually rank with St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain as an autobiography of spiritual ascent. Martin of America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book “a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life,” and says, “It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”
Not all atheists and doubters will agree. Both Kolodiejchuk and Martin assume that Teresa’s inability to perceive Christ in her life did not mean he wasn’t there. In fact, they see his absence as part of the divine gift that enabled her to do great work. But to the U.S.’s increasingly assertive cadre of atheists, that argument will seem absurd. They will see the book’s Teresa more like the woman in the archetypal country-and-western song who holds a torch for her husband 30 years after he left to buy a pack of cigarettes and never returned. Says Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, a scathing polemic on Teresa, and more recently of the atheist manifestoGod Is Not Great: “She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.” Meanwhile, some familiar with the smiling mother’s extraordinary drive may diagnose her condition less as a gift of God than as a subconscious attempt at the most radical kind of humility: she punished herself with a crippling failure to counterbalance her great successes.
Come Be My Light is that rare thing, a posthumous autobiography that could cause a wholesale reconsideration of a major public figure — one way or another. It raises questions about God and faith, the engine behind great achievement, and the persistence of love, divine and human. That it does so not in any organized, intentional form but as a hodgepodge of desperate notes not intended for daylight should leave readers only more convinced that it is authentic — and that they are, somewhat shockingly, touching the true inner life of a modern saint.
Prequel: Near Ecstatic Communion
[Jesus:] Wilt thou refuse to do this for me? … You have become my Spouse for my love — you have come to India for Me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far — Are you afraid to take one more step for Your Spouse — for me — for souls? Is your generosity grown cold? Am I a second to you?
[Teresa:] Jesus, my own Jesus — I am only Thine — I am so stupid — I do not know what to say but do with me whatever You wish — as You wish — as long as you wish. [But] why can’t I be a perfect Loreto Nun — here — why can’t I be like everybody else.
[Jesus:] I want Indian Nuns, Missionaries of Charity, who would be my fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children … You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?
— in a prayer dialogue recounted to Archbishop Ferdinand Perier, January 1947
On Sept. 10, 1946, after 17 years as a teacher in Calcutta with the Loreto Sisters (an uncloistered, education-oriented community based in Ireland), Mother Mary Teresa, 36, took the 400-mile (645-km) train trip to Darjeeling. She had been working herself sick, and her superiors ordered her to relax during her annual retreat in the Himalayan foothills. On the ride out, she reported, Christ spoke to her. He called her to abandon teaching and work instead in “the slums” of the city, dealing directly with “the poorest of the poor” — the sick, the dying, beggars and street children. “Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor,” he told her. “Come be My light.” The goal was to be both material and evangelistic — as Kolodiejchuk puts it, “to help them live their lives with dignity [and so] encounter God’s infinite love, and having come to know Him, to love and serve Him in return.”
It was wildly audacious — an unfunded, single-handed crusade (Teresa stipulated that she and her nuns would share their beneficiaries’ poverty and started out alone) to provide individualized service to the poorest in a poor city made desperate by riots. The local Archbishop, Ferdinand Périer, was initially skeptical. But her letters to him, preserved, illustrate two linked characteristics — extreme tenacity and a profound personal bond to Christ. When Périer hesitated, Teresa, while calling herself a “little nothing,” bombarded him with notes suggesting that he refer the question to an escalating list of authorities — the local apostolic delegation, her Mother General, the Pope. And when she felt all else had failed, she revealed the spiritual topper: a dramatic (melodramatic, really) dialogue with a “Voice” she eventually revealed to be Christ’s. It ended with Jesus’ emphatic reiteration of his call to her: “You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?”
Mother Teresa had visions, including one of herself conversing with Christ on the Cross. Her confessor, Father Celeste Van Exem, was convinced that her mystical experiences were genuine. “[Her] union with Our Lord has been continual and so deep and violent that rapture does not seem very far,” he commented. Teresa later wrote simply, “Jesus gave Himself to me.”
Then on Jan. 6, 1948, Périer, after consulting the Vatican, finally gave permission for Teresa to embark on her second calling. And Jesus took himself away again.
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated
In the first half of 1948, Teresa took a basic medical course before launching herself alone onto the streets of Calcutta. She wrote, “My soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.” Kolodiejchuk includes her moving description of her first day on the job: “The old man lying on the street — not wanted — all alone just sick and dying — I gave him carborsone and water to drink and the old Man — was so strangely grateful … Then we went to Taltala Bazaar, and there was a very poor woman dying I think of starvation more than TB … I gave her something which will help her to sleep. — I wonder how long she will last.” But two months later, shortly after her major triumph of locating a space for her headquarters, Kolodiejchuk’s files find her troubled. “What tortures of loneliness,” she wrote. “I wonder how long will my heart suffer this?” This complaint could be understood as an initial response to solitude and hardship were it not for subsequent letters. The more success Teresa had — and half a year later so many young women had joined her society that she needed to move again — the worse she felt. In March 1953, she wrote Périer, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’”
Périer may have missed the note of desperation. “God guides you, dear Mother,” he answered avuncularly. “You are not so much in the dark as you think … You have exterior facts enough to see that God blesses your work … Feelings are not required and often may be misleading.” And yet feelings — or rather, their lack — became her life’s secret torment. How can you assume the lover’s ardor when he no longer grants you his voice, his touch, his very presence? The problem was exacerbated by an inhibition to even describe it. Teresa reported on several occasions inviting a confessor to visit and then being unable to speak. Eventually, one thought to ask her to write the problem down, and she complied. “The more I want him — the less I am wanted,” she wrote Périer in 1955. A year later she sounded desolate: “Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. — [The saving of] Souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”
At the suggestion of a confessor, she wrote the agonized plea that begins this section, in which she explored the theological worst-possible-case implications of her dilemma. That letter and another one from 1959 (“What do I labour for? If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no Soul then Jesus — You also are not true”) are the only two that sound any note of doubt of God’s existence. But she frequently bemoaned an inability to pray: “I utter words of Community prayers — and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give — But my prayer of union is not there any longer — I no longer pray.”
As the Missionaries of Charity flourished and gradually gained the attention of her church and the world at large, Teresa progressed from confessor to confessor the way some patients move through their psychoanalysts. Van Exem gave way to Périer, who gave way in 1959 to the Rev. (later Cardinal) Lawrence Picachy, who was succeeded by the Rev. Joseph Neuner in 1961. By the 1980s the chain included figures such as Bishop William Curlin of Charlotte, N.C. For these confessors, she developed a kind of shorthand of pain, referring almost casually to “my darkness” and to Jesus as “the Absent One.” There was one respite. In October 1958, Pope Pius XII died, and requiem Masses were celebrated around the Catholic world. Teresa prayed to the deceased Pope for a “proof that God is pleased with the Society.” And “then and there,” she rejoiced, “disappeared the long darkness … that strange suffering of 10 years.” Unfortunately, five weeks later she reported being “in the tunnel” once more. And although, as we shall see, she found a way to accept the absence, it never lifted again. Five years after her Nobel, a Jesuit priest in the Calcutta province noted that “Mother came … to speak about the excruciating night in her soul. It was not a passing phase but had gone on for years.” A 1995 letter discussed her “spiritual dryness.” She died in 1997.
“Tell me, Father, why is there so much pain and darkness in my soul?”
— to the Rev. Lawrence Picachy, August 1959
Why did Teresa’s communication with Jesus, so vivid and nourishing in the months before the founding of the Missionaries, evaporate so suddenly? Interestingly, secular and religious explanations travel for a while on parallel tracks. Both understand (although only one celebrates) that identification with Christ’s extended suffering on the Cross, undertaken to redeem humanity, is a key aspect of Catholic spirituality. Teresa told her nuns that physical poverty ensured empathy in “giving themselves” to the suffering poor and established a stronger bond with Christ’s redemptive agony. She wrote in 1951 that the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus’ life that she was interested in sharing: “I want to … drink ONLY [her emphasis] from His chalice of pain.” And so she did, although by all indications not in a way she had expected.
Kolodiejchuk finds divine purpose in the fact that Teresa’s spiritual spigot went dry just as she prevailed over her church’s perceived hesitations and saw a successful way to realize Jesus’ call for her. “She was a very strong personality,” he suggests. “And a strong personality needs stronger purification” as an antidote to pride. As proof that it worked, he cites her written comment after receiving an important prize in the Philippines in the 1960s: “This means nothing to me, because I don’t have Him.”
And yet “the question is, Who determined the abandonment she experienced?” says Dr. Richard Gottlieb, a teacher at the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute who has written about the church and who was provided a copy of the book by TIME. “Could she have imposed it on herself?” Psychologists have long recognized that people of a certain personality type are conflicted about their high achievement and find ways to punish themselves. Gottlieb notes that Teresa’s ambitions for her ministry were tremendous. Both he and Kolodiejchuk are fascinated by her statement, “I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before.” Remarks the priest: “That’s a kind of daring thing to say.” Yet her letters are full of inner conflict about her accomplishments. Rather than simply giving all credit to God, Gottlieb observes, she agonizes incessantly that “any taking credit for her accomplishments — if only internally — is sinful” and hence, perhaps, requires a price to be paid. A mild secular analog, he says, might be an executive who commits a horrific social gaffe at the instant of a crucial promotion. For Teresa, “an occasion for a modicum of joy initiated a significant quantity of misery,” and her subsequent successes led her to perpetuate it.
Gottlieb also suggests that starting her ministry “may have marked a turning point in her relationship with Jesus,” whose urgent claims she was finally in a position to fulfill. Being the active party, he speculates, might have scared her, and in the end, the only way to accomplish great things might have been in the permanent and less risky role of the spurned yet faithful lover.
The atheist position is simpler. In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: “There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance,” he says. “They thought, ‘Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I’m not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.’ They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired.” That, he says, was Teresa.
Most religious readers will reject that explanation, along with any that makes her the author of her own misery — or even defines it as true misery. Martin, responding to the torch-song image of Teresa, counterproposes her as the heroically constant spouse. “Let’s say you’re married and you fall in love and you believe with all your heart that marriage is a sacrament. And your wife, God forbid, gets a stroke and she’s comatose. And you will never experience her love again. It’s like loving and caring for a person for 50 years and once in a while you complain to your spiritual director, but you know on the deepest level that she loves you even though she’s silent and that what you’re doing makes sense. Mother Teresa knew that what she was doing made sense.”
“I can’t express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in … years — I have come to love the darkness — for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a ‘spiritual side of your work’ as you wrote — Today really I felt a deep joy — that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony — but that He wants to go through it in me.”
— to Neuner, Circa 1961
There are two responses to trauma: to hold onto it in all its vividness and remain its captive, or without necessarily “conquering” it, to gradually integrate it into the day-by-day. After more than a decade of open-wound agony, Teresa seems to have begun regaining her spiritual equilibrium with the help of a particularly perceptive adviser. The Rev. Joseph Neuner, whom she met in the late 1950s and confided in somewhat later, was already a well-known theologian, and when she turned to him with her “darkness,” he seems to have told her the three things she needed to hear: that there was no human remedy for it (that is, she should not feel responsible for affecting it); that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and her very craving for God was a “sure sign” of his “hidden presence” in her life; and that the absence was in fact part of the “spiritual side” of her work for Jesus.
This counsel clearly granted Teresa a tremendous sense of release. For all that she had expected and even craved to share in Christ’s Passion, she had not anticipated that she might recapitulate the particular moment on the Cross when he asks, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The idea that rather than a nihilistic vacuum, his felt absence might be the ordeal she had prayed for, that her perseverance in its face might echo his faith unto death on the Cross, that it might indeed be a grace, enhancing the efficacy of her calling, made sense of her pain. Neuner would later write, “It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus’ passion.” And she thanked Neuner profusely: “I can’t express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in … years — I have come to love the darkness. ”
Not that it didn’t continue to torment her. Years later, describing the joy in Jesus experienced by some of her nuns, she observed dryly to Neuner, “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist].” She described her soul as like an “ice block.” Yet she recognized Neuner’s key distinction, writing, “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.” Although she still occasionally worried that she might “turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness,” with the passage of years the absence morphed from a potential wrecking ball into a kind of ragged cornerstone. Says Gottlieb, the psychoanalyst: “What is remarkable is that she integrated it in a way that enabled her to make it the organizing center of her personality, the beacon for her ongoing spiritual life.” Certainly, she understood it as essential enough to project it into her afterlife. “If I ever become a Saint — I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven — to [light] the light of those in darkness on earth,” she wrote in 1962. Theologically, this is a bit odd since most orthodox Christianity defines heaven as God’s eternal presence and doesn’t really provide for regular no-shows at the heavenly feast. But it is, Kolodiejchuk suggests, her most moving statement, since the sacrifice involved is infinite. “When she wrote, ‘I am willing to suffer … for all eternity, if this [is] possible,’” he says, “I said, Wow.”
He contends that the letters reveal her as holier than anyone knew. However formidable her efforts on Christ’s behalf, it is even more astounding to realize that she achieved them when he was not available to her — a bit like a person who believes she can’t walk winning the Olympic 100 meters. Kolodiejchuk goes even further. Catholic theologians recognize two types of “dark night”: the first is purgative, cleansing the contemplative for a “final union” with Christ; the second is “reparative,” and continues after such a union, so that he or she may participate in a state of purity even closer to that of Jesus and Mary, who suffered for human salvation despite being without sin. By the end, writes Kolodiejchuk, “by all indications this was the case with Mother Teresa.” That puts her in rarefied company.
A New Ministry
“If this brings You glory — if souls are brought to you — with joy I accept all to the end of my life.”
— to Jesus, undated
But for most people, Teresa’s ranking among Catholic saints may be less important than a more general implication of Come Be My Light: that if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem. One powerful instance of this may have occurred very early on. In 1968, British writer-turned-filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge visited Teresa. Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived with a film crew in Calcutta he was in full spiritual-search mode. Beyond impressing him with her work and her holiness, she wrote a letter to him in 1970 that addressed his doubts full-bore. “Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you,” she wrote. “He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite.” Muggeridge apparently did. He became an outspoken Christian apologist and converted to Catholicism in 1982. His 1969 film, Something Beautiful for God, supported by a 1971 book of the same title, made Teresa an international sensation.
At the time, Muggeridge was something of a unique case. A child of privilege who became a minor celebrity, he was hardly Teresa’s target audience. Now, with the publication of Come Be My Light, we can all play Muggeridge. Kolodiejchuk thinks the book may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. “The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”
America’s Martin wants to talk precisely in religious terms. “Everything she’s experiencing,” he says, “is what average believers experience in their spiritual lives writ large. I have known scores of people who have felt abandoned by God and had doubts about God’s existence. And this book expresses that in such a stunning way but shows her full of complete trust at the same time.” He takes a breath. “Who would have thought that the person who was considered the most faithful woman in the world struggled like that with her faith?” he asks. “And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?” Martin has long used Teresa as an example to parishioners of self-emptying love. Now, he says, he will use her extraordinary faith in the face of overwhelming silence to illustrate how doubt is a natural part of everyone’s life, be it an average believer’s or a world-famous saint’s.
Into the Light of Day
“Please destroy any letters or anything I have written.”
— to Picachy, April 1959
Consistent with her ongoing fight against pride, Teresa’s rationale for suppressing her personal correspondence was “I want the work to remain only His.” If the letters became public, she explained to Picachy, “people will think more of me — less of Jesus.”
The particularly holy are no less prone than the rest of us to misjudge the workings of history — or, if you will, of God’s providence. Teresa considered the perceived absence of God in her life as her most shameful secret but eventually learned that it could be seen as a gift abetting her calling. If her worries about publicizing it also turn out to be misplaced — if a book of hasty, troubled notes turns out to ease the spiritual road of thousands of fellow believers, there would be no shame in having been wrong — but happily, even wonderfully wrong — twice.
• Democracy Now interviews Christopher Hitchens on The Dark Side of Mother Teresa (1997) Interview begins 0:43:30
The pope beatifies Mother Teresa, a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.
By Christopher Hitchens
October 20, 2003